I was recently asked to speak to a group of leaders at Williams-Sonoma, Inc. on the topic of inspiration. I was excited to exchange ideas with the future leaders of my company — all of who are very much steeped in our culture and excited about the potential for West Elm, and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. The team had some really thoughtful questions, and I want to share them, along with my responses.


What are the sources and how do you ensure that you’re spending enough time getting inspired?

Getting inspired isn’t as much about spending time as it is about paying attention, and for me that process means listening, observing and most important, remembering.


There’s a great quote from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” It’s the same with inspiration. It doesn’t always show up looking like much.

For me, it usually starts small. I might read a blog post, see an image in a magazine or notice something in someone’s home. But there’s something about it that sticks, and over time I start to notice similarities from other sources. Inspiration comes when these bits and pieces add up, when I start to recall disparate conversations and visual references and realize that they’re all telling a similar story. If that story is relevant to me, personally, and to our work at west elm, I get excited.


Turning the quirks and clues of inspiration into a concrete idea is tricky. Everyone approaches it differently — it’s a personal process. I start by connecting the dots and making a visual roadmap in my head. At this point, many people move to paper and start drawing or writing, but that method doesn’t work for me.

Instead, I begin to workshop the idea by talking about it with disparate groups of people to test and validate my theory. I’m on an information hunt, so instead of explaining what I think about the idea, I ask questions — typically one-on-one in casual conversation with friends and trusted colleagues.

If sparks fly, I bring these thoughts to a work meeting to see how the group reacts. Because I’m much more intuitive than expressive, this is how I get it “down on paper” so to speak: discussion with the team helps me articulate the concept.


What are your methods for getting your team to be passionate about their work, turning what might start as your own vision into the collective vision?

For me, inspiration is the internalization of an idea, and motivation the externalization. Bridging that gap successfully comes down to how well the idea is shared.


I don’t come to my team with a finished concept just waiting to be implemented. I come with a loose idea and their participation brings that idea into focus. So there’s a sense of early ownership within my team. It’s the difference between being assigned to live in a fully furnished prefabricated house versus having a voice in the design and décor. Where would you be happier?

Since my team is involved in the process of validating the idea and moving it forward, they’re usually already invested by the time we pull the trigger. But motivation is about more than idea-by-idea development. It has to do with building a sustaining style of communication.


One of our objectives this year is to create a corporate culture in which diverse points of view are given voice in a supportive environment, and where productive criticism leads to new ideas because it allows us to fully engage with the work of others. The secret to team building — to sustaining quality communication — is that everyone wants to make a contribution. And that is the very root of motivation.


What is your process for developing vision and strategy? Are they developed collectively or do they start with you and then get socialized to the rest of your team?

A: To be an effective organization, vision must be a two-part process. In creative work, vision and inspiration are necessary for the freethinking generation of ideas. But there’s also a corresponding practical component. You must whittle down inspiration to align with the specific goals and talents of the company. As much as vision is a tool that allows you to see all the possibilities, you also need vision to set the guardrails.


Ideas presented without boundaries are overwhelming, and as a result they can burn off. Transforming ideas into strategic action across a cross-functional company like west elm means setting limits to eliminate the possibility of varying executions. Deciding what NOT to do or what NOT to be is the single most valuable key to successful implementation.

Once you’ve edited and focused your idea, the strategic path should be self-evident. When you’re working with a team, you can typically initiate the evolution of that strategy by saying something as simple as, “OK, how can we do this?” At that point, vision is a matter of convergence. You want a broad cross-section from the organization involved to ensure that you’re covering all the angles. That’s when you move beyond vision and strategy and get into real tactical planning.


The most important part of that tactical planning is assigning ownership. Without ownership a task will never get done, and we all know the old adage about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link. Well, a missing link is even worse, so you must be very clear about connecting each step of your tactical plan with its assigned owner.

It’s also essential to be clear about the way in which each assigned owner should prioritize a project. When a project has varying levels of priority across the organization, there’s a greater potential for breakdown. Everyone needs to know exactly where his/her task sits in the idea architecture, as well as what other work initiatives may need to be put on hold or dropped altogether in order to allocate the proper resources to the critical tasks. That’s how you create the think-action connection required to successfully turn vision into strategy — not once but consistently.

In closing, I can tell you that for me, talking about what we do is interesting. But exchanging ideas about WHY we do it is far more fascinating. I hope you agree.


Jim Brett is the president of West Elm and a guest blogger on The Curiosity Chronicles.

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